Just in time for Valentine's Day, Pope Benedict XVI issued an encyclical letter on love.
Popular prejudice thinks a Roman Catholic priest talking about human love is "like a blind man talking about colors," Archbishop Paul Josef Cordes, president of the Vatican's council for charity, told reporters with a humorous touch unusual for Vatican news conferences.
Turns out, a celibate, 78-year-old pontiff has perceptive things to say in his first encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" ("God Is Love"). Moreover, he says them with a clarity that could begin notable improvement in papal writings, and at half the length of the average John Paul II encyclical.
The Tablet, a British Catholic weekly that doesn't necessarily cheer Roman edicts, said Benedict provided "an easy read" and a "profound, lucid, poignant and at times witty discussion."
Benedict builds upon an important statement from one of those often-neglected books of the Bible: "God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him" (1 John 4:16).
So, what is love, which Benedict considers "one of the most frequently used and misused of words"?
He believes human love reflects God's love for humanity and should balance two aspects conveyed by different Greek words for love: eros (physical or erotic love) and agape (pronounced uh-GAH-pay, meaning an unselfish spiritual bond). The New Testament fuses the second term with its great theme of Jesus Christ's self-sacrificing love for humanity on the cross.
Did Christianity destroy eros, as its opponents claim? Benedict acknowledges that there have been distorted Christian tendencies opposed to the body. But he says it's also true that the modern emphasis on eros without Christian agape makes love "purely biological," debases the body and turns sex into a "commodity."
Evidence for that abounds.
By contrast, authentic love involves a total discovery of the beloved which is no longer self-seeking and is exclusive and lifelong because "love looks to the eternal.... Corresponding to the image of a monotheistic God is monogamous marriage," Benedict writes. Marriage is "based on exclusive and definitive love."
This love has a distinct erotic aspect because that's how God created us.
Commentators said Benedict's encyclical provided a warm image to the man who was formerly the church's hardline enforcer of doctrine and morals. However, the encyclical's positive tone carries with it an implicit message of discipline, since its vision excludes divorce and remarriage, adultery, promiscuity and homosexual relationships.
America's pro-gay National Religious Leadership Roundtable quickly complained about this while dissident theologian Hans Kung lamented the plight of remarried Catholics. Others criticized the English translator's insistence on using the generic "man," a sometimes confusing choice for passages about couples.
In a second section, the encyclical addresses love as expressed by the church through its charities and other public involvements.
To the pope, loving works of charity are as essential to the church as prayer and the sacraments. Here, like predecessor John Paul, he is a vehement critic of Marxism. That declining ideology once tried to eradicate Christianity and claimed that believers' loving deeds merely diverted the poor from realizing their plight and thereby helped oppressors.
Here, Benedict offers a succinct philosophy of church and state. No friend of totalitarianism, he says the church should also be limited and leave governing to the secular state. Yet he also insists that the church has the right and duty to influence government, not for partisan political purposes but to speak for justice.
Along the way, Benedict says that the love theme is timely "in a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence." But he discreetly avoids casting any verbal stones at radicalized versions of Islam.
(Historical note: Originally, St. Valentine's Day had nothing to do with romance but honored Christian martyrs with that name who were executed by pagan Rome.)
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